THE BLOG

We Were Warriors Once, and Young...

22/01/2015 09:29 GMT | Updated 23/03/2015 09:59 GMT

It was a wonderful night in Red Lion Square. Conway Hall in Bloomsbury, home to the UK's only humanist and ethical charity and venue for the first autism convention, as opposed to conference.

Elly Badcock, senior events officer for the National Autistic Society (NAS), said:

"The first AutismCon was a fabulous event, with people travelling from all across Britain to attend. We heard from many interesting and inspiring speakers, singers, actors and authors on the autism spectrum, and even relaxed with some superb singing and poetry reading in the evening. Events like this are so important, because they showcase the incredibly diverse range of talents and skills that people with autism have and put paid to the idea that people with autism can't be creative."

I shared an authors' panel with Alastair Reynolds and Peter R. Ellis, saw X factor finalist Lauren Lovejoy sing Skyfall live, met Johnny Dean (front man for Menswear and icon of nineteen-nineties Britpop), sold out my stock of books and got a strong sense of quiet solidarity, but one late query from the audience stayed lurking in a corner of my mind:

"Are we warriors?"

A question which might have seemed a trifle macho in different circumstances, but considering the fact nearly two hundred and fifty people with varying degrees of fear and anxiety about travel, noise and social intercourse had made themselves move, meet, talk and socialize (I came from Scotland - was that the furthest?), it merited a sympathetic answer and received it - the fact that every day is a battle with demons for an Asperger and we struggle through the difficult hours with metaphorical ropes and gritty focus.

This is true for me, too. It may seem I travelled with effortless ease but the truth was anything but. Crossing the Atlantic in 2013 brought on all the old fears and at the time I described them even as I fought them:

"...But now I'm midway over the Atlantic. If not past the metaphorical point of no return, edging onto the perimeter. And the fear comes at me like a blunt-edged wave. Though I've done this before, faced this before, it is like a red cloud shaking my limbs, the primal fear of lack of shelter which never, never ever, goes away.

I joked at Gatwick this morning about another brother on the spectrum, so unable to cope with change every aspect of his journey to and through an airport had to be preserved as if in aspic - bus number, flight number, everything.

But now I know the fear he would feel. It lies in wait and bursts into my consciousness, but I can - just about - navigate my way through it.

I don't make a sound. I reassess the facts and options. I have currency, cashcard and credit. I know my route. I am already sharpening up and the rust is coming off, but I know how vulnerable I am and that the fear will always be lying in wait for me."

Even today, on a domestic flight with BA, I ground through the route in my mind and worried about factors a neuro-typical would have breezed through or crashed headlong into without a care. The seeming hindrance was a help. I picked up the fact there were roadworks nearby and that I had to backtrack four miles at dawn wearing a backpack to meet the bus, catch the tram and make the flight.

I hesitate to call myself a warrior; but for me, that was a fight.

There were even some slight parallels with the lyrics of Lauren Lovejoy's cover of Skyfall. A bit like the old joke I made to MSPs in Dear Miss Landau about being the NAS's "blunt instrument." I'd felt a bit like an ageing Bond at the time (we'd both had shaking hands), going out unprepared but making it all turn out right in the end.

Pretentious delusion, you might think, but when you're an Asperger, getting through the day can be like traversing a really scary skating rink while partially blindfolded. Though I've crossed the world, travelling still feels a bit like being hit over the head by a blunt instrument.

But others are taking worse hits.

According to the NAS, over 695,000 people in the UK have autism and only 15% of autistic adults are in full-time paid employment. Many others are isolated and/or have mental health issues.

So we've all got a long road ahead down which we must walk and this meeting, not at the Mansion House in 1942 but Conway Hall in 2015, reminded me of Winston Churchill's words on that other day:

"...this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

This first AutismCon was a good and humane start, but it's not an end in itself. We cannot yet rest on our laurels and say we once were warriors.

We need be warriors right now, for the war's still on.

James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives in the Scottish Borders.

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